The New Triple Threat: Programming Omeka

You may have seen this tweet. As part of the Public Humanities and Religious Studies foundations course in our MA program, I collaborated with Sierra Lawson and Emma Gibson and helped to build AARtifacts. The project was built in Omeka and is meant to represent interesting artifacts gathered from people’s experiences of the annual American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting. So why did we choose to do this project? And how did we make it happen?

We went in knowing two things: the AAR was our case study for the semester and Omeka would be our platform for this particular project. A couple of brainstorming sessions later, we had decided to collect items from the faculty in our own department and create collections based on what we received. Sierra took on the task of trawling YouTube and Vimeo for relevant videos. Emma took the lead on scanning all of the old bulletins of from the academy. I photographed all of the physical items — tote bags and buttons, mainly. Altogether we had more than 100 items to catalogue.

Then came the part that actually involved Omeka. Omeka has a plugin that, ideally, should be able to upload a CSV document and separate your items automatically. This means that instead of entering each of those 100 items by hand, we’d be able to enter them seamlessly from the spreadsheet we had all contributed to. Except it didn’t work.

screen shot of slack conversation

Obviously this was a source of frustration for all of us. We had used the spreadsheet format trusting that it would upload with no or minimal problems. So as Sierra and Emma started entering the items individually (mad props to them for being willing to do that), I went digging. I needed an answer.

The first problem I had to address was that Mike (our professor and the host of the project) would receive a detailed error message and all I got was “Omeka has encountered an error.” After a few clicks and some light googling, I was able to 1) make some files appear in Mike’s file manager that were hidden for the purpose of being more user friendly and 2) fix a line of code that allowed Omeka to read error messages to me. Now I was able to at least find out what the problem was.

After another couple of hours of trying to make the plugin work, failing, digging to find out what the error was, and even more googling — it sounds much more straightforward than it actually was — I found the problem. All I needed to do was enter the right path for the command line in the right line of code of the right file and ta-da it would work. I went back to Mike, let him know, and asked him to find the path I needed to enter. A few days passed (I later found out it was because he was waiting for me to finish my thesis proposal) and he sent me the path. He had already had it for another error he had encountered earlier on in his domain configuration.

I fixed it. I entered the path in the right line of code and it worked! Sierra and Emma had already entered almost 70 of the items and I was able to get the rest in that afternoon. After some tweaking and cleaning up from Mike, we have the project you see now.

So here’s why I bring any of this up in the first place: I had no idea that the one computer science class I took a few years ago as a math major would help me with a project in the humanities in grad school. But it did. I don’t know PHP, but I know the basics of reading code and can identify errors with a little bit of work. Maybe the new triple threat is a student who can not only think critically, but also work collaboratively and fix broken code.

Cross posted on Sarah’s website.

A Student Report from WordCamp Birmingham

WP y'all graphic

This past weekend (October 21-22), I attended the annual WordPress conference in Birmingham, Alabama: WordCamp Birmingham. You may be asking: If she’s in an MA program for Religion in Culture, why does she need to go to a WordPress conference? An important aspect of the program is a focus on digital and public humanities — how we convey our research through digital media and to unconventional audiences. Part of that focus results in developing digital skills like WordPress to present our ideas and ourselves professionally to the general public. In fact, building a WordPress site was the first project we tackled in REL 502: Public Humanities and Religious Studies.

The conference was set up to serve all levels of experience ranging from complete newbies to experienced programmers. It was designed with three types of sessions going on at once all day long: blogger, business, and developer. Within each room, there was a flow to the sessions that would aid people who went for only one of the tracks, but we were encouraged to jump around to whatever felt appropriate for our individual needs. I dabbled around in each of the categories, discovering that most of the newbie stuff I had down (even though I still can’t seem to figure out how to make comments work properly on my own site) and the vast majority of the programer/developer side of things went way over my head. As far as the business sessions? I only went to one because the rest really didn’t seem that applicable to me, at least in this stage of my online presence.

The regular sessions went from 9:00am to 4:30pm on Saturday. On Sunday, two workshop sessions were offered in the afternoon. Again, three choices were given for each and everyone was encourage to attend the one most appropriate for their needs. These workshops were less geared toward the three categories set out on Saturday. Instead, they offered ways to make everything we had learned the day before applicable to our own sites. In addition to the sessions and workshops, WordCamp offered a “Happiness Bar” where you could go at any time and get individual help with anything that you might be struggling with on your site. And of course, no conference would be complete without t-shirts, free stuff (stickers, pens, more t-shirts, etc.), food (lunch from McAllister’s, Frios Gourmet Pops, Margarita Grill), and prizes (I won a year of free hosting from Known Host).

My notes from this conference go on for more than 10 typed pages and I now have an incredibly long list of things to do based on what I learned. Here’s a taste:

  1. Explore ways to fix my comments problem
  2. Make my site accessible to individuals with disabilities
  3. Research things like: Jetpack, See Jane Write, and SEO
  4. Set up Google Analytics and Google Search Console for my site
  5. Consider participating in #bloglikecrazy this November

Of course, this list goes on and I’m sure I’ll be adding more as I become more aware of and acquainted with WordPress. For now, I’ve got plenty to digest. I learned what’s behind the screen of domain registration, what task runners were, methods to connect with an audience, how to rebrand when necessary, why SEO matters, and many more aspects of using WordPress.

WordCamp is definitely the kind of conference you could attend over and over again and always learn new things. And because there are conferences in several major cities throughout the year, there’s almost always one happening soon fairly nearby. I, for one, plan on going to the one in Birmingham again, and maybe even WordCamp Atlanta in April if I need a refresher before then.

Beyond gaining skills for my personal site, this conference helped me to explore questions about the more technical side of what a digital religious studies could look like. There are odd tidbits that will help along the way (like making sure that image has alt-text). But there are also larger themes that are still stewing in my brain. The next project we tackled in 502, Omeka, operates in a similar manner to WordPress and can work alongside it. As it turns out, WordPress can be used for so much more than just blogging.

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The REL Journal Group: Durkheim and Data Edition

The following exchange between Prof. Mike Altman and Sarah Griswold, a student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of the journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Mike Altman: Sarah, for our first journal reading group you chose the article “Durkheim with Data: The Databse of Religious History” from a recent issue of JAAR. What’s the gist of the article and why did you think we should read it in our group of MA students and faculty?

Sarah Griswold: The article is basically an introduction (and justification) for the Database of Religious History. This database is meant to serve two purposes: to be a database for “religious groups” in the premodern world and to provide evidence for a theory of religious evolution. In effect, the database tries to play both fields of holding and providing both quantitative and qualitative data. The article mostly reads as an attempt to draw more scholars in in order to add data to the database.

As far as why I thought we should read it, there were a few reasons. First, as someone with a background in both the humanities and math, I think understanding how and why qualitative data is quantified is really important to understanding and critiquing the purpose and use of databases like this one. Second, as the humanities (and particularly religious studies) moves more and more towards digital projects, we need to be aware of what’s out there so we can emulate what is done well and improve on what is lacking. Finally, the article also offers us insight into the theoretical workings of the project itself. Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within, making the move from qualitative to quantitative data suspect. That, I think, can be quite telling of the ultimate success or failure of a project of this size.

MA: As a student in this new MA program that has an emphasis on digital and public humanities what can you learn from this article and what can we as a program learn?

SG: Personally, this article reinforced the importance of thinking through the categories you use when quantifying data. It can be easy to point to something you “know” is religion and label it as such without thinking about why you’ve decided on that label in the first place. It’s also interesting to think about the collaboration across disciplines that these projects require. It would be impossible for one or two scholars to gain all the skills needed to make these things even work. It turns out that group projects exist in real life too and not just in school.

As a program, I think the biggest take away is to pay attention to the developments of these projects. Because the DRH has a capacity to refine their methods, I don’t think they should be entirely dismissed as uncritical. There are positive and negative take aways from critically examining any digital project. Learning more about digital projects and examining their goals and functions can and will tell us a lot about how to move forward in our own individual and collaborative projects.